On Saturday, Staff Writer Emily Yi and Senior Staff Writer Meeral Tashfeen attended a night of this year’s Kit Noir Film Festival, titled Beyond the Femme Fatale: The Women Who Made Noir. The night featured a panel discussion on women in crime fiction and true crime, followed by a screening of Strangers On A Train (1951).
Fans of film noir gathered this weekend in the second-floor screening room at Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. This year’s Kit Noir Film Festival lineup explored women’s contributions to film noir from behind the camera, as “film producers, screenwriters, novelists, and, in one instance, as a director” (CU School of the Arts). Saturday’s programming highlighted the work of female crime novelists such as Barnard alum Patricia Highsmith (BC ’42), whose debut novel was adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers On A Train.
The night began with a panel featuring Megan Abbott, a crime fiction writer and scholar of hardboiled crime fiction, and Sarah Weinman, who writes about true crime in her books and The New York Times. The conversation was moderated by Professor Rob King of the Film and Media Studies department at CU School of the Arts. The discussion centered on women’s contributions to crime writing from the 40s to the 60s, and women’s importance to crime fiction and true crime throughout these genres’ histories.
Audience members looking for book recommendations were in luck. Weinman and Abbott’s shared love of crime fiction was in full swing as they discussed a range of classics authored by women—including Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place, Elizabeth Holding’s The Blank Wall, and the work of Charlotte Armstrong.
Uncovering the legacy of women in film noir, according to Professor King, means subverting the perception of the genre as a “cry of male anxiety in the postwar context.” Weinman remarked that contemporaneous gender tensions, especially the “chafing and cracking of women’s traditional roles” during the postwar years, manifested in the work of women crime writers. In particular, both Abbott and Weinman hailed Hughes’ In a Lonely Place as a “missing piece of crime fiction history”—pivotal in its treatment of gender and power in a male-dominated genre.
In reference to the titular archetype of this year’s festival, Abbott remarked that the notion of the femme fatale is critical to gender dynamics in film noir. Although the “femme fatale” is conceived as a woman who conspires to draw a man to his doom, many female-written crime novels “take the traditional notion of the femme fatale and shatter it” when a man is revealed to be the true force of danger.
The second half of the conversation turned to true crime and, in particular, two recent headlines: the Murdaugh trials and the University of Idaho killings. The outpour of content inspired by these two cases means that moral qualms about transforming real pain into narrative are urgently at hand, and both Abbott and Weinman recognized that the genre of true crime is undergoing a reckoning with how it treats the stories of victims.
Weinman, a true crime writer herself, voiced her concern that the barrage of content would override quality with quantity, thus turning the victims into intellectual property instead of real people with real suffering. She remarked that the issue comes down to the question of whose stories are being valued. “Are we trying to get at the heart of what happened, or just retelling an archetypal myth?”
Regarding the fact that true crime audiences tend to be disproportionately female, Abbott offered the insight that true crime “is a place where the women’s issues that you’re not supposed to talk about are actually explored”—issues such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, and female rage.
The relationship of true crime to recent social movements is also a central part of its continued development. King remarked that in a way, movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter deal with issues of “true crime,” putting pressure on the genre to consider these kinds of violence in their scope. Similarly, Weinstein noted that the genre has been increasingly able to address how systemic issues play a role in individual acts of violence.
Weinman and Abbott concluded their discussion with an introduction to the night’s film screening. Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is based on the debut novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, a 1942 graduate of Barnard College. Characterized by Weinman as a “singular writer always plumbing her own obsessions and deepest compulsions,” even those that could sometimes be “deeply uncomfortable,” Highsmith’s acclaimed works also include The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and The Price of Salt (1952), which was later developed into the 2015 film Carol.
As noted by Paige Willis in the program notes to the night’s screening, Highsmith’s mystery and crime novels often feature queer subtexts—although Highsmith was not open about her sexuality, she had many documented affairs, “[walking] a fine line between romance and suspense.”
If you haven’t already seen it, Strangers On A Train is definitely worth a watch. At face value, the dynamic duo of the film is maniacal dandy Bruno Anthony and dashing tennis star Guy Haines. The film chugs to a swift start when the two meet on a train, and Bruno drags the unwitting Guy into a murder scheme in which each man will kill someone that the other wants dead. Bruno openly fantasizes about killing his father, who’s crotchety and demanding, and he offers to murder Guy’s wife, who, despite her infidelity, is holding off on finalizing their divorce.
The real stars of Strangers On A Train, however, are the women. Miriam, Guy’s estranged wife, is portrayed as confident, flirty, and sexually promiscuous. Despite being pregnant with her lover’s child, she decides that she doesn’t want to go through with their divorce, keeping Guy from marrying his lover Anne Morton. When he becomes enraged at her last-minute about-face, she threatens to tell the public that her pregnancy is in fact Guy’s—weaponizing the role of a helpless woman when she’s really anything but. On the other hand, Anne, the daughter of a US Senator, is Miriam’s perfect foil. She’s classically gorgeous, lily-white, and entirely devoted to Guy.
Miriam and Anne’s contrasting femininities cannot be disentangled from how their fates unravel—the former ends up strangled to death in the first thirty minutes of the film; the latter gets her happily-ever-after. The comparison between Miriam’s overt sexuality and Anne’s guileless beauty reflects contemporary gender anxieties about how a woman should look, act, and love. Even seventy years post-facto, Highsmith’s exploration into these anxieties is one that remains resonant.
Upcoming screenings hosted by the CU School of the Arts include a discussion on the podcast Mother Country Radicals and a series of short films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Learn more and register here.
Kit Noir Film Festival via Meeral Tashfeen